Bukayo Saka reveals Thierry Henry mentoring ever since Euro 2020 penalty agony
Bukayo Saka is preparing to knock France out of the World Cup this weekend, but one of their greatest players has been mentoring him since his Euro 2020 heartbreak, playing a part in the England forward becoming one of the young stars in Qatar.
In the aftermath of his penalty miss against Italy at Wembley last year, one of the messages of goodwill came from an unknown number … and it was Thierry Henry’s. The scorer of 228 Arsenal goals wanted to get in touch with the player from his beloved club and offer support in the face of racist abuse.
The pair have kept in touch since, with Henry providing guidance for Saka, although the friendship may be put on hold at Al Bayt Stadium on Saturday when Gareth Southgate’s team face Les Bleus, looking to send them out of the competition they won with Henry in their squad in 1998.
“Thierry was in touch,” Saka said. “It meant everything. He’s shown a lot of his character to get my number and to reach out to me. “It’s not just from that moment. After most Arsenal games, he reaches out to me and he’s still so passionate about the club and he’s an amazing person.”
Saka’s education with Arsenal was at their academy’s Hale End base and he never got to meet Arsene Wenger, yet there is still a Frenchness to the club after his 22 years as manager. “I know how much my dad loves him and how much everyone at the club loves him and I know what he did for the club, of course,” said Saka.
“Thierry and Robert Pires have been around the club and spoken to me and helped me and they have supported me to this day, so I’m grateful to them. Of course, on the pitch, they delivered and they were magnificent and they delivered silverware for Arsenal, so they will be legends, always.”
Saka, with the support of people such as Henry, has matured in the past 17 months since his penalty miss against the Italians. Known as “B” in the England squad, he talks with a smile and says his faith in God removes other stresses and worries of tournament football.
Any concerns over taking another penalty were removed when he scored from the spot against Chelsea and Manchester United during consecutive games in April.
When asked whether he would be the next Kylian Mbappe, he laughed. “First of all, thank you for the compliment … but no. There is only one Kylian Mbappe – and at the same time, there is only one me.
“I have progressed and matured as a player and a person since that moment [at Wembley].
"I would not have stepped up the times I have stepped up for Arsenal with penalties if I was not confident, so if the moment comes and if I am set to take it, I will be more than happy to.”
So far at this tournament Saka has scored three goals in as many starts, including twice against Iran and then in the last-16 victory over Senegal to set up the mouthwatering tie when Southgate’s team face France.
It is Saka’s first World Cup and his earliest memory of the competition is Shakira’s Waka Waka (This Time for Africa) song for the 2010 tournament. His debut for England came after they reached the semi-finals four years ago and he is dreaming of making history by going one better than the Euros and winning a major tournament.
“I always allow myself to dream. Having watched the tournament as well growing up, I remember South Africa 2010, the famous song, it’s an amazing song,” he said. “Things like that stick with you forever and as a kid you just wake up after a dream and think, ‘I want to do this, I want to score a goal in a World Cup’.
“We have to believe that. We have to come into this tournament and believe that we can win it. Right now our focus is on the next game, France. “It is going to be a really difficult game, but you have to try to get through that and focus on the next one and it will get closer and closer and we need to give ourselves the best chance to win it.”
Saka also backed Southgate, who was criticised during the summer when England failed to win a match in the Nations League. “We all back the manager because he has an unbelievable record in these tournaments and has taken us really far,” he said.
“He does make decisions and he’s got them all right, so we need to try to trust in him more, believe in him more and stop doubting him. We should be in a good place and just trust him.”